Christian Architecture

The Spiritual Made Physical

Stephen Bau
9 min readOct 9, 2018


I am looking back over 50 years of my life, growing up evangelical in Canada. In the early years, I felt confused and fearful. Now I am disgusted and angry, coming to terms with a social identity that is unravelling in light of a growing awareness of a wider reality, an evolving perspective as I try to compare my point of view to the lived experiences of others.

by Stephen Bau

ART 125
Prof. Steven Williams
December 18, 1992

Drawing on the elements and forms of the architectural and engineering accomplishments of previous cultures, especially the Greeks and Romans, Christian architecture has undergone changes in style, decoration, and ornamentation, and in complexity of design and theological content from its origins around the time of Constantine to the end of the Medieval period. The significance of the development of Christian architecture might best be understood through a comparison, in terms of structural function, artistic form, spiritual symbolism and historical significance, of Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic architecture using four churches acknowledged as representative of each of these styles: Old Saint Peter’s, Rome; The Hagia (Sancta) Sophia, Istanbul (Constantinople); St.-Sernin, Toulouse; and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Chartres.

Since the time of Constantine architects have tried to give visible and tangible expression to the reality of the spiritual world in the structures they created. In 323 A.D., Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium, and from there he embarked on an ambitious plan to visibly and tangibly reinforce his decision to establish Christianity as the “new official faith” (Janson 257) of the Empire through monumental architecture. The basilica, a relatively simple architectural form, became the prototype upon which most of all church structures subsequently conceived have been based. But this form was first put to use by the Romans, who had patterned it after the greek peripteral temple, as a meeting place for purposes of commercial transactions, judicial and legal proceedings, political and oratorical gatherings, and dramatic entertainment (James 317). Its usual characteristics included a rectangular hall surrounded by a colonnade of Corinthian columns on which, in larger basilicas, a balcony and another layer of columns might be supported in addition to the wooden beams of the roof; and a semicircular apse, a niche with a hemispherical roof receding into the wall at one end of the hall. In the Roman building, this apse would normally be used as a law court.

Constantine’s architects adapted the pagan form of the basilica to a new set of priorities in the design of the first two great monumental buildings to officially recognize and endorse the Christian faith: San Giovanni in Laterano and San Pietro in Vaticano, or Old Saint Peter’s, both in Rome. Old Saint Peter’s (figs. 1, 6–8), begun by Constantine in 324 A.D., about the time San Giovanni was being completed (James 324), represents what has been called the “chief and mother of all churches” (Hutter 14) and the greatest Constantinian church (Janson 257).

In addition to the Christian basilica’s function as a building for the gathering and assembly of the church congregation, priests and bishops, the intended aesthetic and emotional effect of the edifice was to transport its occupants beyond the physical, time-bound present into the spiritual, timelessness of eternity. It accomplished this by creating an interior space, articulated by columns, arches, and vaults, that reflected the qualities of the spiritual world. The exterior, plain brick and rather unimpressive, was completely different from the elaborately decorated façades of the pagan temples which were used as backdrops for outdoor ceremonies and rituals. The Christian basilica “turned the temple outside in” (Fleming 100). It became the “House of God,” where the Christian ritual and liturgy placed a heavy emphasis on procession and focused attention on Christ’s sacrifice, symbolized by the altar, and his lordship over the universe, symbolized the the triumphal that framed the altar.

The altar was situated in front of the apse, placed at the eastern end of the basilica, facing the holy city, Jerusalem. Between this apse and the entrance at the western end was a long horizontal space instead of the central space surrounded by columns typical in Roman basilicas. In Old Saint Peter’s, this space, the nave, proceeding from the western entrance to the eastern apse, was like a wide aisle, flanked on each side by a row of columns; that is, five aisles separated by four rows of columns. From the entrance of the church, the rhythm of the columns guided the eye toward the focus of the building, which centred on the integrated triumphal arch and vaulted apse. The altar, placed in front of the apse, was the centrepiece of the Eucharistic ritual, the place where the priests would offer the bread and wine, representing the body and blood of Christ, as individuals of the congregation would proceed toward the altar to partake of the sacraments. Also, each of the walls of the nave, supported by the columns separating it from the aisles, were penetrated by a row of clerestory windows which were set high enough and deep enough that even the sky was not visible. The light from these windows illuminated an interior covered in mosaics and polished marble surfaces, reflecting light and colour with a shimmering effect of spiritual brilliance. The effect on the church congregation was a kind of spiritual illumination.

The “foremost monument of the Byzantine style” was the great Hagia Sophia (Fleming 105), built by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus in 532–537 A.D. in Constantinople, presently Istanbul (Janson 270). According to Hutter, Hagia Sophia was Emperor Justinian’s “architectural masterpiece” (72), and the “physical expression of the close ties between church and theocratic imperium” (72). It is an extraordinary feat of engineering, with an interior space 100 feet wide and 200 feet long. The design of Hagia Sophia (figs. 2, 3, 9, 10), the Church of Divine Wisdom, combines elements from the basilica and the centrally planned domed structures used in other churches, as well as “Roman techniques of vaulting and Greek ideas of proportion” (Hutter 72). The basic structure of the building centres around a huge dome, rising 183 feet above the ground, supported on arches that form spherical triangles, called pendentives, which concentrate the weight of the dome on the piers at the four corners of the square space it covers. Below the dome this space opens at two ends into semi-domed areas to form an oval nave twice as long as it is wide. Vaulted semicircular niches with open arcades further penetrate the walls of these semi-domed areas. Light spills from a ring of windows cut out of the lower part of the dome, from windows surrounding the arcades, and from arched openings, piercing the side walls of the nave which have no supporting role, for the arches carry the weight of the dome. It has been said that this interior light was not illumination “by the sun from the outside, but … radiance … generated from within” so that the dome “seems not to rest on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven by a golden chain” (McManners 123).

The eleventh century was characterized by a growing spiritual energy expressed in the number of pilgrims traveling to visit sacred sites and the number of architectural projects that had been initiated or were in progress across western Europe, now more unified in the figure of the pope through his rallying call for the First Crusade. Population growth and the revival of trade created urban centres which, to accommodate its large congregations as well as traveling pilgrims, demanded new and larger church structures. These buildings presented a new architectural style derived from “Roman” influenced elements, including vaulted, instead of wooden-roofed, naves and more “richly articulated” exteriors (Janson 331). Representative of this Romanesque style of church architecture is a great church of the “pilgrimage type,” St.-Sernin, in the town of Toulouse in southern France (Janson 333).

The plan of St.-Sernin (fig. 4) is patterned after the Roman cross, with a longer downward vertical. Similar in basic structure to Old St. Peter’s the cross is formed by the nave and the four aisles that run parallel to it on either side. Unlike the basilica, though, the two nave aisles continue around the perimeter of the transept arms and on either side of the area beyond the transept crossing, called the choir, to surround the apse at the end of the church. This aisle forms a “complete ambulatory circuit anchored to the two towers of the west façade” (Janson 333). Niches receding into the walls of the apse and the eastern walls of the transept arm functioned as apsidal chapels to accommodate numerous pilgrims crossing Europe on their way to the holy land and worshippers from the local city congregation. The large size of the nave and enlarged transept intended to house a maximum number of people.

Immediately striking about the nave interior (fig. 11) are the supporting pillars of the nave arcade which continue up past the clerestory to join with the ribbed arches of the vaulted ceiling rising 14 feet above the floor. These ribs are a device to move the eyes of the congregation heavenward as well as to draw the attention along the length of the nave to the altar in front of the apse. The stress, though, is predominantly vertical, forcing one to look up and contemplate the things of the spiritual realm.

The Gothic style, during the “Age of the Great Cathedrals,” from the mid-twelfth to the mid-thirteenth century, achieved predominance in church architectural design. It spread gradually from its origins in the royal province of the Île-de-France to the rest of the regions of France and, finally, to all of Europe. Population growth and urbanization continued to increase from the early eleventh century, and cities flourished, developing great cathedrals, with affiliated schools and universities, which assumed the role once held by monasteries as educational and religious centres.

This new architectural style originated in the rebuilding, under Abbot Suger’s direction and supervision from 1137 to 1144, of the Abbey Church of St.-Denis, just outside of Paris, in the Île-de-France. Suger’s redesigned structure was to be a monument of both spiritual and political significance, intended to unify the nation of France in support of the monarchy, whose power had been consolidated in an alliance with the local Church bishops and the Roman papacy.

Suger’s design most notably introduces the invention of flying buttresses, wing-like stone structures that, by deflecting the force of the weight of the vaulted roof, actually assumed a large part of the supporting function of the walls of the nave and apse. Since the walls were no longer essentially weight-bearing, they could become windows that spanned virtually the entire height of the wall. The greater illumination afforded by the use of flying buttresses created a luminous, other-worldly, extra-temporal interior, which enhanced the religious experience of the church’s clergy and laity. The flying buttresses also became a sort of exterior skeleton.

Based on the architectural proportions and structural innovations of Suger’s St.-Denis, the bishop of Chartres began the rebuilding of the city’s cathedral in this same new style in 1145. The present church (fig. 15) is the product of reconstruction after a fire, in 1194, that gutted everything except the west façade and the east crypt, containing the sacred relic, the veil of the Virgin Mary; and of an evolutionary building process that continued into the sixteenth century, when the northern spire was completed (Fleming 105; Janson 360). The west façade of Chartres Cathedral (fig. 14) includes two strikingly different, but amazingly harmonious spires that crown two supporting towers separated by the entrance wall of the nave, divided into a lower section of three entrance portals, a second level with three corresponding lancet windows, and the upper face dominated by a rose window. The magnificent lighting effect created by the large circular rose window was the pride and glory of the Gothic period, replacing the mosaics and wall paintings of earlier Byzantine and Romanesque churches. The Gothic art of stained glass was the “ultimate stage in the etherealization of interior space” (Fleming 161).

Chartres Cathedral’s plan (fig. 4) is more bullet-shaped in comparison to that of St.-Sernin. Instead of two aisles on each side of the nave and a single ambulatory aisle around the apse, Chartres Cathedral has single aisles flanking the nave and the transept arms, and two aisles forming an ambulatory surrounding the longer choir and the apse. Side chapels radiate as semicircular niches in the walls of the apse. Piers consisting of a cluster of five slender columns support the “graceful pointed arches of the nave arcade (Fleming 15) and the quadripartite vaulting that rises 122 feet above the floor (fig. 13).

The richly decorated exteriors of Gothic cathedrals such as that of Chartres brings architectural style back to the ancient Greek and Roman tradition of building design with an ever-greater emphasis on outer decoration and ornamentation. Yet the innovations in structural engineering and artistic design of church design had brought architecture far beyond that which the Greeks and Romans had been able to accomplish in terms of scale and monumentality of Gothic structures, while retaining many of its basic elements and characteristics. Its intent from the beginning, though, was always to give the spiritual realm a tangible presence in the physical world.

Works Consulted

  • Fleming, William. Arts & Ideas. 7th ed. New York: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1986.
  • Hutter, Irmgard. Universe History of Art & Architecture: Early Christian and Byzantine. (English translation by George Weidenfeld & Nicholson) 1971. New York: Universe, 1988.
  • James, E. O. From Cave to Cathedral. London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.
  • Janson, H. W. History of Art. 4th ed. New York: Abrams, 1991.
  • Hubert, J., J. Porcher, W. F. Volbach. Europe of the Invasions. New York: Braziller, 1969.
  • McManners, John, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Volbach, Wolfgang Fritz. Early Christian Art. (Photography by Max Hirmer.) New York: Abrams, 1962.



Stephen Bau

Designer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective. We are exploring how we imagine, design, and build the future together.